As I watched the Elevator Repair Service's production of Measure for Measure at the Public Theater the other night, I experienced a blast from the past.
Back in the 1980’s, Potters Field Theater Company, with whom I worked, decided to stage a Shakespeare Marathon that was on the clock. The goal was to make it into the Guinness Book as the fastest reading of Shakespeare. The company members did a sort of tag team reading of all the plays. They were bivouacked in one of the Macy’s windows and the reading was piped out onto the street. They read so fast that, as you approached said window, it sounded like a cross between birds and bees. It was a sort of melodic buzzing.
This is exactly the sound I heard in this production. It sounded as though the actors were speaking from speed instead of meaning. As a matter of fact this is exactly what actors do in the theatre when they are zeroing in on their physical cues - entrances, exits, prop handling etc. It is like traveling point to point in the play. But that is a rehearsal technique. Not intended for performance.
Even with the best of intentions, under the direction of John Collins the cast delivers their lines with such speed that for much of the two hours (no intermission) they are unintelligible. This may explain the appearance of text scrolling down the walls of the set from time to time. This is not decoration. The audience actually reads. We don't mean to. We are compelled.
I have seen several of ERS previous productions, The Sound and The Fury, The Sun Also Rises and Gatz, all of which were a fantastic combination of performance/reading. Stunning in simplicity and elegance. I anticipated being surprised with this production as well.
I was, but not in the way for which I had hoped.
Measure for Measure is one of those plays that depends on the old saw of disguise that is nothing more than a hat or in this case a hood. The Duke (Scott Shepherd) of Vienna leaves town to return in disguise so as to spy on his second in command Angelo (Pete Simpson) who is plain and simple not a good guy. The Duke moves somewhat faster than Harvey Weinstein's board of directors in this endeavor and manages to unmask Angelo in a mere couple of hours. In addition he manages to release a falsely accused man Claudio (Greig Sargeant) and steal the heart of Claudio's sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) - but not before he does a bit of duplicitous sleight of hand himself. The end.
Somewhere along the line we are supposed to align ourselves with Isabella, whose backbone never bends even when her brother's life is at stack. We come close to this in the intimate scene between the siblings, but this pause is only a blip on the screen of an otherwise chaotic stream of events.
This is another one of those times when, as John Randolph always counseled - "one must never blame the actors." This cast gives it everything they have. The pacing, however, does them in. We cannot follow what we do not understand. Or we cannot follow with the full force that we wish. The plot is deciphered enough for us to understand the conclusion. By the time it arrives, however, we are almost mad with the desire to flee the sound of this nearly consonant free buzzing and rush out into the night to be soothed by New York's street cacophony.
(Photo by Richard Termine)
"There was every reason to rejoice in the prospect of this company finally venturing into the land of William Shakespeare, where words have the quicksilver shimmer of thought itself. Yet its frantic interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Public Theater, calls to mind Hamlet’s immortally jaded literary critique: “Words, words, words.”"
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Audiences who don’t know Measure for Measure may well find this version confusing. Those who know the text well, however, will find much to enjoy in ERS’s pointed run-through."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...